The report rightly highlights the importance of high-skilled migrants, but underplays the role of low-skilled workers in cities
The Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) has today published its final report on the impact of European Economic Area migration to the UK – analysis first commissioned in 2017 by the then home secretary Amber Rudd, with the aim of informing the post-Brexit migration system. The report offers more evidence on the important role that EEA migrants play in the UK economy, and also makes a number of significant policy recommendations for the Government’s upcoming white paper on migration.
Here are three reflections on the MAC report’s recommendations, and the implications they might have for the UK’s post-Brexit migration system:
The report shows that there are more benefits from high-skilled migration than low-skilled migration and it suggests that the new system should reflect this. As we show in our recent report on EU migration to UK cities, EU workers play an important role in high-skilled industries in a number of places: for example, in Cambridge, one in every ten workers in the professional services, a predominantly high-skilled sector, come from the rest of the EU.
And this means that if the freedom of movement ends – which is the premise of the MAC report–cities like Cambridge would face serious issues in meeting the demand for highly-skilled workers that is currently met by EU workers. For this reason, the commission is right in proposing the removal the cap on Tier 2 Visas –the main route through which non-EEA high-skilled migrants can come to work in the UK.
The report also recognises that it is not just the high-skilled parts of the economy that will suffer from a fall in EU migration. For example, in London, the construction industry heavily relies on EU workers. And this sector has an important medium-skilled element. To fill this gap, the MAC suggests including medium-skilled occupations too in the Tier 2 Visa list.
Low-skilled industries are the most reliant on EU workers. As our research shows, one in every ten workers in the hospitality sector in cities – a predominantly low-skilled industry – came from the EU. But the Commission thinks that there is no need for a legal work route for this group of workers, on the basis that these vacancies could be filled by lower-skilled migrants coming to the UK through the family route (i.e. on a family visa).
Alternatively, the MAC suggests that the Government could implement a Youth Mobility Visa that allows people aged 18-30 to work and study in the UK for two years (without being able to bring dependants).
But these proposals would significantly restrict the flow of low-skilled workers to UK cities, which could result in serious labour shortages. As such, to avoid a cliff-edge scenario, Centre for Cities suggests that the Government should continue the freedom of movement until the new migration system is in place and this should go beyond early 2021, if necessary.
Notwithstanding our differences with the MAC on the issue of low-skilled migration, the report provides excellent evidence on the economic role of EEA migrants, and balanced recommendations on the back of this analysis. Whether the Government will listen is another matter.
For a start, migration is a deeply contentious and political topic, which was at the heart of debates ahead of the EU referendum – and this will inevitably have a bearing on the Government’s migration policies, regardless of the evidential basis for the MAC recommendations.
And secondly, there have been some movements in the Government’s position on migration that have been seemingly independent of the MAC recommendations. For example, its announcement of a temporary agricultural worker visa scheme came before the MAC report launch. And while the MAC’s report starts from the premise that freedom of movement will end, reports have suggested that the Government might take a more ad hoc approach to freedom of movement, offering this kind of arrangement to places which are willing to strike a comprehensive trade deal.
Ultimately, to design a post-Brexit migration system which is fit for purpose, our research shows that the Government has to look not only at the sectoral basis of migration, but its geography.
With cities accounting for 70 per cent of EU population in the UK, it is urban employers that will face the greatest challenges and the new system should reflect this. Neither the MAC’s recommendations or the Government’s approach to date fully account for this.
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